SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy makes history with successful launch

On February 6, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched the first long awaited demonstration flight of the new Falcon Heavy spacecraft. The rocket is now the world’s most powerful operational vehicle. It can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest spacecraft Delta IV Heavy at one-third of the cost. Falcon Heavy’s success marks a huge step forward for a company that has already been shaking up the industry with its trailblazing ventures.

Launched on 3:45 EST after a few delays due to weather conditions, the Falcon Heavy successfully lifted off from the launch pad of the historic Kennedy Space Center in Florida, used for Saturn V’s 1969 Apollo 11 mission. The Falcon Heavy is now officially the world’s most powerful operational rocket since the Saturn V which carried first astronauts to the moon 45 years ago.

The rocket is a super heavy-lift launch vehicle which is a variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The first stage of spacecraft is composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft.

All three engines of the Falcon Heavy are reusable and two of them successfully returned to landing sites after take-off. However, the center core engine of the rocket crash landed in the ocean near its landing pad. "The center core hit water at 300 mph and took out two of the engines of the drone ship," said Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, at a press conference. But even with the core engine lost, the test launch has definitely exceeded expectations.

The spacecraft is now headed deeper into space carrying an unusual payload – Musk’s own midnight cherry Tesla Roadster. Placed in the car is a dummy wearing a SpaceX spacesuit, a copy of the 1979 novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and a towel saying “Don’t Panic”, as Musk previously announced on Twitter. David Bowie’s “The Oddity” is playing on repeat. During the launch live stream, SpaceX also revealed that it placed an “Ark” storage system containing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

SpaceX is the first company to use private payload beyond geostationary orbit. However, it is not the first time the company’s spacecraft contained an unusual payload – back in 2010 Falcon 9 rocket carried a wheel of cheese aboard, Musk said on Twitter.

The significance of the launch

Falcon Heavy was designed from the outset to carry humans into space. According to SpaceX, it restores the possibility of flying manned missions to the Moon or Mars. Musk, told Syfy Wire that the rocket’s destination is Mars, but more precisely, the spacecraft will penetrate the low energy elliptical Mars orbit which is called a Hohmann transfer. In space travel, it is the most fuel efficient orbital path requiring the smallest amount of energy.

The success of this flight is a game changer for SpaceX and the industry as a whole. Costing approximately $90 million per launch, it is just a fraction of the price of Delta IV Heavy which can cost up to $400 million per launch, according to CNN. SpaceX could use the Falcon Heavy to send larger national security satellites into orbit that its Falcon 9 rocket cannot currently fly.

A cheap, powerful rocket like this could also catch the eye of NASA. The space agency is currently developing its own heavy-lift launch vehicle called the Space Launch System (SLS). However the SLS is years from operational use and can cost up to ten times more than the Falcon Heavy, The Verge reports.

According to Musk, the SpaceX rocket could be a cheaper option for NASA. And the government is paying attention. U.S. Vice President’s Chief of Staff Nick Ayers tweeted that a successful launch could have major positive ramifications for U.S. space industry.

As monumental as the successful launch was, there were definitely some doubts about Falcon Heavy before liftoff. The founder himself told CNN before the flight that it will either be “a great rocket launch or the best fireworks display”.

The test launch had a lot of firsts – the separation system for the side boosters of the spacecraft had never been tested before in space, and the flight is the longest coast mission SpaceX has ever done. In fact, considering that the massive rocket was holding together at all is a miracle, according to Musk.

With the low expectations surrounding the test launch, SpaceX definitely proved their skeptics wrong. The triumphant launch of the Falcon Heavy not only advanced SpaceX’s positioning in the spacecraft market, but should also provide considerably more options for U.S. space industry as a whole.